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The Batman Lives in Societal Grey Areas

Image Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures & DC Comics

I know what you’re thinking. The Batman, on a horror site? It may not be as far out there as you think. Batman has always been a detective. The first appearance of the character obviously comes from Detective Comics. He wears a mask, breaks into places, and inspires Gotham’s villains to rise maliciously to the challenge of defeating him. It’s like if Michael Myers created a cult following. Oh, wait, they tried that in one of the timelines. Anyway, I would typically agree that no Batman movie up to Matt Reeves latest film isn’t a horror film. However, The Batman features a noir atmosphere, Saw like devices, amputation, and two detectives —Batman and Lt. Jim Gordon (Jeffrey Wright)— resembling Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman working a serial killer case that has a lot of similarities to David Fincher’s Se7en.

Robert Pattinson as The Batman
Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures & DC Comics

Matt Reeves is no stranger to big blockbuster films. He’s directed the original Cloverfield and two out of three of the Andy Serkis-led Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy, whose combined total at the box office raked in over a billion dollars at the box office. Reeves also has a background in horror, getting his start writing and directing a segment for a TV horror anthology film called Future Shock, and later writing and directing the remake of Let the Right One In, simply titled Let Me In. As a producer, he’s also helped bring the remaining Cloverfield movies to life, as well as last year’s Mother/Android and an American remake to Sputnik in the works. It was inevitable his horror and action interests would someday meet. 

The Batman is a vigilante action film that starts on a home invasion note similar to The Strangers. The first seconds of the film depict a heavy breathing Paul Dano looking through a rifle scope on a building adjacent to the Gotham mayor’s estate. It isn’t long before Dano’s Riddler is standing in his shadow. The first act of his plan is realized as we watch him bash the mayor’s skull in, spattering blood on the various accolades and accomplishments hanging in the manor. It’s brutal. But it’s the ciphers he leaves within his riddles to The Batman that bring about a game of cat and mouse with the Holmesian superhero. 

The Batman’s tone from start to finish is dark and noirish. Occasionally the film shifts into a reddish color palette, helping the audience elicit a response of fear, intimidation, or danger. Even Batman’s cape and popped collar suit periodically resemble a trench coat. Fear tactics are a huge theme in the film. The mayor’s death is the catalyst for The Batman’s epic three-hour story, beginning The Riddler’s vicious murder spree as he mimics The Batman’s actions to sort out his own brand of justice through fear. While occasionally mirroring the tactics of Batman Begins’ Scarecrow, the film is more socially conscious of our current climate, presenting perception as a double-edged sword. Machiavelli wrote, “It is better to be feared than loved, if one cannot be both,” but The Batman suggests it’s dangerous to be one without the balance of the other. Batman finds a way to serve the city rather than stay exclusively in the shadows trying to protect it.

Selina Kyle/Catwoman
Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures & DC Comics

Bruce Wayne also finds himself unable to stay in the shadows. Not yet the playboy he’s destined to become, the press and Falcone have labeled the billionaire a recluse. A burgeoning mayoral candidate attempts to show the class divide between Gotham’s poor and the wealthy shut-in that Bruce Wayne embodies, contrasting his social impotence to his father’s philanthropy. Bruce’s ignorance and Batman’s shadow tactics are put on trial in The Batman. The hypocrisy of Batman’s judgment toward what vengeance and villainy are becomes muddled and resonates with both of Bruce’s personalities. From one angle, the richest man in the city isn’t contributing anything to his community, and, from the other, the city’s crime-fighting vigilante has inspired a psychopath to emerge out of idolization. 

One of the best parts about The Batman over previous origin entries is the film’s complete inattention to crime alley and the night of Martha and Thomas Wayne’s death. While the event is a part of the storyline, the audience isn’t made to relive the moment they’ve seen a million times. It’s like Reeves, who co-wrote the script with Peter Craig, took a page out of the Spider-Man playbook and considered there was nothing new to offer. Seriously, how many times does the audience need to see Martha’s ripped pearls and flaccid wrist hit the pavement? 

Besides The Riddler, the periphery villains of The Batman are astounding. I literally had no idea that Colin Farrell played Oswald Cobblepot. The prosthetics and makeup department make him look utterly unrecognizable. Cobblepot, or The Penguin, elevates the film to another level as a low-key gangster film. The Penguin works as an underling to John Turturro’s Carmine Falcone, running a seedy nightclub, the hidden underground nightclub inside it, and the drug operation those clubs serve as a front for. This version of the character is comparable to Robin Lord Taylor’s from Fox’s television series Gotham but doesn’t ever fall into the comic book trappings the show fell into. Cobblepot isn’t exactly who the fans are showing up for, but they’re likely not to forget an impressive highway chase scene involving the character, and it will be fun to see how this villain’s path continues if (when) sequels are planned. 

Wayne, Cobblepot, and Falcone speak in The Batman
Photo Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures & DC Comics

Zoe Kravitz’s Catwoman, on the other hand, is the best version of Catwoman I think audiences have ever seen. Unlike the character’s use in previous films, this Catwoman is three-dimensional and plays closest to the comic book anti-hero fans have wanted to see represented for years. There’s a lot of complexity in Kravitz’s character beyond the black and white of whether she’s a hero or criminal. While I love Pfeiffer’s leatherbound cat lady, doling out the justice she sees fit —and think Anne Hathaway’s version teetered closer to the Julie Newmar version of the character from the 1960’s television show— fans have yet to see the potential of the character’s intricacies outside of the DC’s animated films and TellTale’s Batman games. Catwoman provides another view of an orphaned character who’s barely scraping by straddling two lifestyles, one legitimate and other more off-the-books operations, not unlike our hero. While the film’s pace is non-stop, and there truly isn’t any room to fit anything more in, I still wished Kravitz had more time on-screen. She’s absolutely purr-fect (yeah, I know what I did).

People look at comic book films and assume they’re cookie-cutter plots that fit the notion of good versus evil, but The Batman lives in the grey area. The Penguin and Catwoman represent Neutral Evil and True Neutral characters, respectively, to Batman’s chaotic good versus The Riddler’s chaotic evil, but even that gets messy. After the only scene I’ve explicitly told you about from the film (trying to stay as spoiler-free as possible), Batman is seen empathizing with the mayor’s orphaned son. This element recurs throughout the movie and offers the difference between privileged circumstances, regardless of how appalling the event is. As more is revealed about our villains and their illustrious backgrounds, the story’s similarities unsettle as much as it intrigues. The Riddler’s pursuit of Gotham’s biggest secrets reverberates anti-fascist and Black Lives Matter movements by comparing institutional corruption to Gotham’s crime syndicate, the clear difference being the benevolence of the protest groups versus the irredeemable road of violence The Riddler takes.

Though most will find the chaos of Dano’s Riddler to echo Heath Ledger’s Joker, and yes, Dano is that good, it’s the focus on Gotham’s institutions that—as in our own world—deserve attention. There is a lot to like about Reeves’ The Batman from the constant action, cinematic nature, social perspectives, and its horror film approach. It’s far more of an accomplishment in technical achievement and storytelling than a trailer with gunshots and punches can ever do justice. While I really enjoyed the film, I still had my nit-picking, film critic moments. A particular gripe that really won’t spoil anything being Bruce Wayne and The Batman exclusive whisper-talking, making it funny that a room full of Gotham’s finest never piece it together. There are plenty more, but they’re primarily benign observational riffs. Still, The Batman is a thrill-ride that packs a wallop and not the extremely violent one the start of the film initially indicates. The Batman is a thinking man’s film worth stewing in and considering the subtext. However, like Ledger’s Joker, I’m sure gas masks like The Riddler’s will be a hit over the Halloween season by incels who didn’t understand what the movie was about. 

The Batman is now playing in theaters everywhere.  

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Written by Sean Parker

Living just outside of Boston, Sean has always been facinated by what horror can tell us about contemporary society. He started writing music reviews for a local newspaper in his twenties and found a love for the art of thematic and symbolic analysis. Sean joined Horror Obsessive at it's inception, and is currently the site's Creative Director. He produces and edits the weekly Horror Obsessive podcast for the site as well as his interviews with guests. He has recently started his foray into feature film production as well, his credits include Alice Maio Mackay's Bad Girl Boogey, Michelle Iannantuono's Livescreamers, and Ricky Glore's upcoming Troma picture, Sweet Meats.

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